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Vera Brittain

From Women in European History

Jim Mumford

Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth

Vera Brittain as a young woman


Contents

Cultural Boundaries in a Time of War

Introduction

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand ignited a conflict which would drag the entire world into one of the bloodiest wars in history. World War I is best remembered as the war in which man’s inhumanity towards man reached a level of horror that had never before been seen, while an entire generation of young men dug themselves into trenches to fight indecisive battles, winning or losing a few miles of land at a time. Adding another dimension to the brutality, new weapons, like mustard gas, long range machine guns and flame throwers, made it possible for men to die slow, agonizing deaths, or to live on, permanently disabled and disfigured by missing limbs, burns and blindness. Those who were lucky enough to survive the war, even if they were physically unharmed, remained forever changed by what they had seen and experienced. Vera Brttain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth, is a powerful account of the War to End All Wars and its effects on “the bright, passionate generation who came of age on the eve of the war and vanished in its trenches” [1]. Brittain’s work is more than that though, as it was meant to advance the causes of feminism and pacifism. As a source of history, the work also provides the reader with a view of what life was like, and how society was constituted, in Brittain’s time. Ultimately, the author exposes the different ways World War I caused the break down of social and cultural boundaries, creating conflict along lines of class and gender. Women who contributed to the war effort worked in occupations which directly challenged the traditional notion of a woman's role in society. Women used the war as opportunity to gain respect and to assert themselves as professionals. The war also affected how men and women interacted with one another, as the harsh rules of Victorian society were gradually relaxed. In this way, the war caused social changes to take place on the home-front.

The Soldier's Story

Brittain does, in fact, claim the soldier’s story for women. Decades after the book was published, Brittain recalled that she had been inspired to write Testament of Youth because she wanted people to “remember the women who began their war service with such high ideals or how grimly they carried on when that flaming faith had crumbled into the gray ashes of disillusion” [2]. She wanted to add a woman’s voice to the chorus of surviving male soldiers who made themselves heard during the war books boom. While she was writing, she expanded her claim, which became “to include her generation of both sexes” [3]. Brittain attempted to portray her own experiences as typical of the women who served in the war. Brittain essentially claimed that women fundamentally shared the experiences of the soldiers who fought in the trenches. In Fighting Different Wars, Janet Watson perceptibly identifies the narrative of Testament of Youth as following the soldier’s story in a nutshell. She characterizes this typical story as being about the man who marched off to war to fight for God and Country, only to find that, war is hell, and, if he was lucky, to return home disillusioned by the fact that the reality had clashed so violently with his ideals.

Brittain juxtaposed her own experiences as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse against those of her brother Edward, her fiancé Roland, and her two dear friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, all four of whom fought and died in the war. In writing of these men, she cited their letters to show how each one to varying degrees went through the same process of their high and lofty ideals giving way to disillusionment as the reality of war set in. Only Roland, because he died early in the war shortly after becoming engaged to marry Brittain, does not become disillusioned, instead dying, while he still felt like “a barbarian, a wild man of the woods, stiff, narrowed, practical” [4]. His death deeply affected Brittain. She understood the cruel irony in the fact that he died an inconsequential death under circumstances that were certainly not heroic even though, of the four men, it had been Roland who had most fervently pursued medals of valor, seeing war as his chance to become a hero. He had called “the elemental reality of war,” “fascinating… horrible, yet very ennobling” and, “beautiful” [5]

In stark contrast to Roland, Brittain’s brother Edward was a peace-loving musician who was killed in action in Italy, and was posthumously decorated for leading a battalion during what was one of the rare decisive battles of the war. His men had all liked him because he had kept morale high by his efforts to stay clean-shaven and relatively hygienic even while he was in the trenches. Brittain’s brother had soldiered on despite the grim reality of his daily life at the front, and even tried to keep up his appearance long after the forces of patriotism and idealism had been replaced by disillusionment with the whole affair of war. He ominously expressed his belief that life was precious and ought not to be wasted by time spent fighting with the simple phrase, “la vie est brève” [6]. As a direct result of losing the four men whom she cared about most at that point in her life, Brttain wrote, “I did not propose to submit to pious dissertations on my duty to God, King and Country. That voracious trio had already deprived me of all that I valued most in life” [7]. She could no longer even pretend “to be animated by ideals” [8]. She summed up her feelings about the war best when she wrote, “victory and defeat began—as indeed they were afterwards to prove—to seem very much the same thing” [9]. In this state Brittain continued to work as a nurse, attempting to follow her brother’s example. In doing so, Brittain showed that she was more than a grieving woman. She was a woman would continued to do her duty despite the pain that she undoubtedly felt. She did not take an extended leave of absence to deal with her grief. She soldiered on, just as her brother had. The fact that Brittain continued to “soldier on” long after so many of the male soldiers had died is significant because, ultimately, that is the difference between the masculine and feminine experience of war. although ships carrying soldiers, civilians and war-workers alike were torpedoed throughout the war, the fact is that women were not likely to be casualties of war.

Nonetheless, Brittain showed that her personal narrative of idealism disintegrating into disillusionment was close to that of a male soldier. She also attempted to show that the actual service which she provided was also similar to a soldier’s service. In order to strengthen her own claim on the soldier’s story, Brittain describes the hospital wards, especially in France near the Western Front, as though they were another kind of trench, even if the medical personnel had not literally dug themselves into the earth. She was after all, close to the front, and she witnessed, just as the men witnessed, the horrible injuries and the human cost of war first hand. It is in this way that Brittain argued for women’s service in war to be recognized as valid, something which in her eyes, had not been adequately done at the time when she was writing.

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Challenging the Feminine Ideal

Brittain effectively argued that her occupation as a V.A.D. nurse challenged the traditional female ideal because of the way in which she characterized herself as the female equivalent of a soldier. Certain critics such as Watson criticize Brittain’s effort as having failed because she cast herself in the role of the embodiment of “the female mourner” and “the prototype of the survivor” [10]. She may have been both of these things. However, that does not mean, as one New York Times reviewer suggested upon the release of the book, that Vera Brittain and the other V.A.D. nurses, “fit neatly” within the confines of the soldier’s story. Brittain may not have convinced her readers that the V.A.D. nurses deserved to be thought of as soldiers, as Watson suggests was one of their intentions. Brittain certainly did challenge the category of gender as it had been applied in her own time. Indeed, Susan Grayzel, the author of Women’s Identities at War, suggests that all women who worked in or near the combat zone, as female doctors and nurses did, “revealed the instability of the divide between home front and war front” [11]. As a nurse, Brittain was caring for and nurturing men. From that point of view she was certainly acting in a traditional female role. Brittain’s portrayed the hospital as an extension of the warfront and the V.A.D. nurses as the female equivalent of soldiers in order to support the idea that women actively challenged the category of gender during World War I.


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Conflict Along Class Lines

Brittain’s work explores a variety of ways in which different social groups came into conflict with one another during the war, as well as the way in which social mores were changed by the war. The war was, in certain ways, an opportunity for women. Brittain discusses the fact that women doctors were eventually allowed to care for injured soldiers simply because the demand for doctors outnumbered the available male doctors. Professional female nurses also had an opportunity to assert their chosen careers to a greater extent than they previously had, as there was a greater demand for their services. Watson gives the reason that the perpetual conflicts between V.A.D. nurses and professional nurses as the fact that professional nurses had authority over the V.A.D. nurses, despite the fact that the professional nurses were almost always from a lower socio-economic background than the V.A.D. nurses. This type of power relationship was rare in English society, which was still dominated by a rigid hierarchy at the time of World War I. Also, the free movement of female V.A.D. nurses during the war made it so that women were no longer required to have a chaperone when they traveled or met with men, although meetings with men, in theory were still relatively restricted. In practice, the strain of war and the uncertainty that both partners might not live to see one another again, led young men and women to be less and less cautious in their meetings as the war dragged on. Brittain was a witness to the way in which the war caused dynamic changes to take place in social and professional relationships between men and women.

Resistance to Change

The British culture’s resistance to change is also very evident in Testament of Youth. Brittain complains at one point about the V.A.D. uniform, which is comprised of multiple woolen garments, covering the women’s arms, neck, and head. Each individual item of this traditional uniform had to be washed each day after work. Brittain’s desire to fight Victorian values and to wear “one loose-necked, short-sleeved overall” is completely understandable [12]. Gender norms were so strong that women were required to wear an old-fashioned uniform in order to, theoretically, preserve modest, pure, womanly reputation. The rule seemed absolutely ludicrous to Brittain who knew that another, more practical outfit would have been more suitable to the demands of her job.

British culture also resisted the evolution of female roles in society more generally. Brittain’s duties as a V.A.D. nurse came into conflict with her more traditional duties as a daughter when her father asked her to break her contract and to return home from France to care for mother, who had suffered a breakdown. Brittain chose to return home, feeling that she could not simply go against her father, even though, as she observed, a boy in her position would have had no choice but to stay at the front, fighting. For that reason, for the sake of equality, she wanted to stay but believed that she still could not. As Richard Badhenhausen writes in his article, Brittain was caught between two worlds, the world of war, and the domestic world, the world of her family. Early on, Brittain lamented that, "women get all the dreariness of war, and none of its exhilaration" [13]. This attitude betrays the strain that Brittain certainly felt as a result of being unable to fight in the war, to fight for her country. The intense desire to serve her country was one reason that she became a nurse. However, as she found out, women's work in war was not seen as being as serious as the work that the soldiers were doing. That is why her father called her back to her family. The belief that her work should have been taken more seriously by her father and by society as a whole drove Brittain to write her memoirs.

Political Activism

Later in her life, Brittain became a politically active feminist and pacifist. Brittain’s pamphlets are one subject of Muriel Mellown’s article. She examines the methods Brittain used to gain support for pacifism as Europe and the world once again plunged itself into war into 1939. Basing her radical pacifism on both religion and reason, Brittain alienated many people at this point in her life. Despite her declining reputation, Brittain remained steadfast in her opinions. The strength of her beliefs perhaps shows just how deeply Brittain was affected by World War I. Brittain's experience as a V.A.D. nurse helped her to reach the conclusion that war was a futile waste of life. At one point in the text, she wondered how a world that was supposedly civilized could still be so barbaric as to go to war. Brittain carried the deaths of her brother, her fiancé and dear friends with her for the rest of her life.

Brittain’s pacifism was also influenced by the way she saw war as detrimental to society as a whole. The war affected everyone, from the soldiers in the trenches to the war workers to the parents and wives at home worrying about their loved ones. Brittain observed that her own parents, and all of the elderly citizens, were aging faster and more markedly as a result of the constant strain of war; and, of course, she believed that she had lost the best years of her own youth. Not only did the war destroy people physically, but, Brittain thought that all of the fighting, all of the supposed heroism of the soldiers in World War I, had been “nothing but a passionate gesture of negation—the negation of all that the centuries had taught themselves through long aeons of pain” [14]. For Brittain, the war meant that their culture was not as sophisticated as she had thought it was during her years at Oxford. Men died in unfathomable numbers. With that in mind, it is possible to see Brittain’s book as a “plea for peace” which shows “without any polite disguise, the agony of war to the individual and its destructiveness to the human race”; and, as Mark Bostridge suggests, this theme “still resonates in oItalic textur world today” [15]. It makes sense that Brittain continued to spread her message of pacifism in the decades following the First World War, as she watched Europe drift once again towards violence and bloodshed.

Conclusion

Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth is an important book. In writing about her experiences during the Great War, Brittain reveals the way in which World War I caused the categories of gender and social class to break down. As a direct result of the way women participated in the war effort, they challenged the traditional concept of gender. The war gave women a variety of opportunities to assert themselves as professionals and as contributors to the war effort, which troubled the established traditions of what it meant to be a woman in English society. As a result, the mores of society gradually changed throughout the war. Meetings between members of the opposite sex were less strictly restricted than they had been before the war began, especially for men and women of higher social classes. Women could move more freely throughout the country, without a chaperon. Ultimately though, the most important effect of the war was the sense of disillusionment which it left with the generation that had sacrificed so much to fight that war of attrition to its bitter end. Indeed, Brittain believed that the war was harmful, not only to the surviving soliders and the families and friends of those who had died but to the people of the world and to the fabric of civilized culture as well. In this light, her book is most certainly political, as it was meant to advance the causes of feminism and pacifism. Brittain wrote firsthand account of the way in which men killed one another senselessly, guided only by ideals, without a true understanding of why they were doing what they were doing it. Testament of Youth is a powerful book and Vera Brittain's message deserves to be taken seriously.


Endnotes

  1. Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (p.Back Cover).
  2. Watson, Janet. Fighting Different Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. (p.248).
  3. Bostridge, Mark. Introduction to Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (p.xii).
  4. Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (p. 216).
  5. Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (p. 104).
  6. Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (p.403).
  7. Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (p.450).
  8. Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (p.450).
  9. Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (p.418).
  10. Watson, Janet. Fighting Different Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. (p.261).
  11. Grayzel, Susan R. Women's Identities at War. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill. 1999. (p.8).
  12. Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (p.453).
  13. Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (p.104).
  14. Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (p.635).
  15. Bostridge, Mark. Introduction to Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (p.xvi).

Additional Information

Jim Mumford's Additional Information

Annotated Bibliography

Jim Mumford's Annotated Bibliography

Works Cited

Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Badhenhausen, Richard. Mourning Through Memoir: Trauma, Testimony, and Community in Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth”. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Winter, 2003). Published by: Hofstra University. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3176034.

Mellown, Muriel. One Woman’s Way to Peace: The Development of Vera Brittain’s Pacifism. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2, Women and Peace, pp 1-6 (1985). Published by University of Nebraska Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3346044.

Watson, Janet. Fighting Different Wars. Cambridge University Press: New York, New York. 2004.

Grayzel, Susan R. Women's Identities at War. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill. 1999.

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